Aladdin review

I’ve always enjoyed my previous visits to Garden Suburb Theatre productions so I was happy to take a trip to the end of the Northern Line to see them performing a new pantomime at the Bull Theatre. The venue was new to me too, and seemed well suited to a show needing lots of audience interaction, if perhaps a little more challenging for set designers.
Aladdin is one of the most traditional and popular pantomimes, but this was an original take on the tale with a new script which seemed well-suited to the capabilities of this cast. Speaking of the cast, one of the delights of community pantomime is the age-range to be seen on stage, but this production surpassed any other I have seen this year in the difference in ages between the youngest and oldest cast members; although the recurrence of surnames showed that this was also a show of families as well as a family show. The youngest members of the cast, if understandably less confident than some of the more mature performers on stage, were nevertheless good value and brought fun and endearment to the production.

Mary Musker as Director should be complimented on bringing together this very disparate cast and creating an enjoyable and impressive pantomime which managed to preserve much of the traditional strengths of the genre alongside some original touches. Musical Director Tim Solomons led a three-piece band who contributed greatly when playing but had little to do, especially in the second half. This was puzzling until a glance at the cast list (in the excellently-designed programme) revealed that two-thirds of the band were playing characters on stage in the second half. This was presumably unavoidable (and they were good in the roles) but mixing live and recorded music did make the case for live music where possible, and the end of the first half badly needed a rousing song.

This was a pantomime with less music than is often the case and a few more songs or dance numbers throughout would have been welcome – and could perhaps have helped cover some of the set changes as well as giving more opportunities for choreographer Emma Pleass, who is to be congratulated for taking on the task with such a young ensemble. With a chorus this short we should be thankful the sightlines are so good at the Bull Theatre or they would have been impossible to see.
The set (Andy Farrer and Jo Eggleton Rance) was extremely well painted and looked good on the open and rather unforgiving stage at the Bull, but changing it between scenes was challenging for the backstage crew. They coped well and the band played along to cover the changes but the need to work at height by standing on chairs did hold up the action. Perhaps some form of folding flats that open like a book and can be turned over page by page, as is often done by other groups working on thrust stages like this? The flying carpet design was a nice touch, but hardly seen at all and over in a flash – after all that work making the props with false legs, best to get more value from it.

Dave Barron’s script had some very nice touches, including the enhanced role given to Trump the Camel, with kudos to the young perfomers inside, Jonah Maddocks and Maya Woolf, who had to negotiate the set and even climb inside the washing machine. I also enjoyed the meta-panto moments about not having the performing rights for some songs. Audience interaction played its necessary part, but if characters are in the audience talking to them, don’t have anyone on stage continuing the dialogue – the audience don’t know who to listen to.
It was good to see the script included versions of the traditional routines like the washing machine in the laundrette and most of the stock characters were included. Alongside them were a variety of bit-parts, essential in any script intended for an amateur society, and well-played here by some of the more mature members of the company, although occasionally needing a little more pace; but this was the first night.

I wasn’t totally convinced that the transformation of Wishy Washy into Agent X, despite an energetic performance by Emma Pleass, but the replacement of Abanazer with Threezameh the Evil worked well, especially in the impressive and hard-working hands of Lorena Moreau, a baddie who can also play comedy and has the timing to interact with the Dame. Nice work too from India de Bono as one half of a comedy duo.

For the most part, the comedy was strong although it is always best to integrate jokes into the script so that if no-one laughs there is no awkward silence. Including lines like “I’m going to tell you some jokes about…” is always risky and should be avoided. Most of the traditional pantomime rudery focussed on the flatulent camel (perhaps a little over-done) but there were a couple of lapses of taste: mentions of prison showers and soap or words like brothel do not sit well in a family pantomime. Such lapses were rare however.

In a large cast with no real weak links it is impossible to mention everyone, but there were two performances that will remain with me. I have no idea if Oz Ouchoka has played Dame before, but this was a master-class in how to do so. He looked the part, bonded with the audience and even covered for any little hitches by calling for a delayed blackout or helping others out. He is one of those performers who make others on stage feel safe and supported; I hope to see him play the role again.

Performance of the night for me, however, especially given his youth, was Lucas Farrer as Slap the Monkey. Always in character whether the focus of the action or not, this was a performance of great skill both physically, where his movement was excellent, and in the amazing range of intonations he gave to the single word banana. His pratfalls and slaps were excellent too, but badly needed underlining from the percussionist. A performer to watch, and another I will hope to see again, perhaps in next year’s GST production of Peter Pan.

Chris Abbott (Sardines review)

Measure for Measure – Sardines review

Measure for Measure
William Shakespeare
society/company: Garden Suburb Theatre (directory)
performance date: 06 May 2018
venue: Little Oak Wood Open Air Theatre NW11
reviewer/s: Caroline Jenner (Sardines review)

Measure for Measure is a notoriously hard play to both perform and direct, not least because uncut it easily stretches to three hours in its entirety and that is a good half hour longer than it needs to be. The lady sitting next to me at this production by Garden Suburb Theatre would almost certainly agree, as she fell asleep after the first five minutes and intermittently opened her eyes, to then settle back into a comfortable slumber. Well to be fair it was a very warm, muggy Friday night and Measure for Measure has a very complicated plot, but some judicious pruning might not have gone amiss.

A play full of strong moral arguments, Measure for Measure allows the characters to throw ideas back and forth about the role of justice: whether a ruler should follow the letter of the law or accept compromise, and perhaps most importantly whether a rapist should be forgiven. Although the slightly lighthearted sub plots add an element of humour, they also force the director to span a strange miscellany of ideas and attitudes, making Measure for Measure first and foremost a problem play.

Initially with this production there was the need to accommodate over 20 actors within the play and ensure that the audience recognises and understands who they are and their relationship with each other. The ensemble nature of the staging by director Colin Gregory, with most of the company on stage the whole time, is a brilliant way to help the audience remember who is who. Additionally, he also manages to find an excellent equilibrium between the serious and comic elements, which can often seem quite incongruous if not carefully balanced.

Amos Witztum’s, Duke Vincentio, is clearly a man on a journey of self discovery, wavering between firm and self-assured with Isabella and Claudio, yet filled with doubts and a sense of concerned responsibility, when considering the way he has allowed Vienna to fall into such bad habits. Witztum manages to keep the Duke believable, despite the fact that he plays fast and loose with his subjects emotions. Keeping the truth that her brother is still alive from the woman he allegedy loves, is perhaps the ultimate example of unscrupulous ‘fake news’ making us wonder why Escalus says ‘he is a man of all temperance’. He takes over the drama halfway through, leaving behind him a sea of confusion, despite all this he still remains likeable.

Isabella is of course the woman who would rather her brother died than give up her chastity – perhaps the most famous line in the play “More than our brother is our chastity,” is some how rather appalling in this day and age, where sexual relations are two a penny and virginity is held cheap. However, like with so many Isabella’s I still find it hard to believe not only that she would change so dramatically and accept the hand of the Duke in marriage, but that someone so virtuous and devout herself would find it possible to talk herself into acquitting Angelo, however much she tries to justify his behaviour as pure – it is an overly simplified response. Just one more problem that is difficult to unravel in this knotty play.

Mariana, played by Francine Ross, desperately clings on to the husband she has just acquired with an urgency borne from the feeling that he is about to be ripped away from her. Her appeal that he be forgiven remains slightly implausible. Far more believable is the woebegone Juliet, who trails behind a chained Claudio, looking suitably sorrowful. Claudio himself appears very little, but Anthony Gretton, gives a memorable performance as a man who moves from the shock of hearing Angelo’s demands to someone who is desperate to live and begs his sister to concede. Perhaps a more gradual change in tone would have been more realistic as I feel that Gretton moves from a stunned sadness to an aggressive desperation a little too quickly.

Michael Reffold makes a very believable Escalus. Omer Warman appears seriously resolute in his honourable agreeing to give the Friar a chance to put right the wrongs initiated by Angelo and Amelia Radnedge stands beautifully still holding a crown, which is never worn!

The bawdy moments are played up well to lighten the tone, particularly Edward Smith as Lucio, who is hilarious as the verbose fool, who stalks the disguised duke. His comically strong performance enhances the dramatic irony as we watch him dig himself deeper and deeper in trouble. It is good to see Lucio played less as a dandy and more as some one who always looks out for number one and takes every opportunity to hear the sound of his own voice.

However, all credit must go to Edwin Coutts, playing Angelo as an unemotional, frigid individual who becomes totally obsessed with covering up the evidence of his guilty lust for the chaste Isabella. Perhaps one of the most difficult of Shakespeare’s roles his despotic, stifled nature is clearly shown through this very confident performance. He manages to present an extremely credible vision of a man who seems to be losing his way, much to his own horror and chagrin.

The staging was unpretentious, but effective. I enjoyed the simple use of rods to create doorways and the pageantry of the Duke’s return to Vienna – although the procession does perhaps sadly add to the length of the play, as did the walking all the way around the circle of chairs to return to the requisite seat, and I was never quite sure if the painted flats really added anything to the play.

Frances Musker and Diana Darrer put together some fantastic costumes, although Isabella’s shoes stand out disappointingly beside the amazing footwear of the male members of the company, you will need to see the show to appreciate their authenticity.

Greater pace, particularly with line delivery in the comic scenes, and perhaps some careful cutting would make the performance a little more slick, however, overall this production has some excellent line delivery and the understanding of the Shakespeare was superb, making it easy to follow the plot and an enjoyable way to spend a summer’s evening.